Brand Akhilesh Yadav and the American style of campaigning

Apart from our elections, even the campaign machinery has also become more American

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The 2014 general UP elections 2017  represent a watershed in the Indian electoral history in many ways. For one, it changed forever how campaigns are conducted in the country. The Lok Sabha poll campaign saw the then Gujarat chief minister, Narendra Modi, creating a parallel campaign machinery outside of the party to take his word to the people. His campaign to become the Prime Minister had, in fact, kicked off even before the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) named him its Prime Ministerial candidate.

Citizens for Accountable Governance (led by political strategist Prashant Kishor) helped Modi run a political campaign that could have given any MNC giant a run for its money. Through his 360-degree campaign, Modi reached out to disparate voters using their own communication mediums. What made it stand out was the campaign’s focus on modern technology – social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp were used extensively and effectively to create a cult following for Modi and turn the election into an almost Presidential campaign. The result: Narendra Modi seemed to be the only candidate around.

Lessons from this campaign have been learnt by other political parties as well – some more than the others. Later, similar ways were used in Delhi by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), and in Bihar by Nitish Kumar, who built an unlikely alliance with his long-time bête noire Lalu Prasad, took his own message of good governance to the people, and returned to power with a landslide victory.

In the 2014 campaign, the Samajwadi Party had suffered due to its poor reputation when it came to law and order in Uttar Pradesh. Sensing how political communication had changed, Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav also decided to adopt the new paradigm. The process started in 2015, when he first met Gerald J Austin on October 31, 2015. Austin had been leading Democratic Party campaigns in the US for decades and had worked on campaigns for former US Presidents like Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. The famous campaign strategist told the Economic Times that he couldn’t set up base in India owing to his age (he is 72 now) but could help train political associates and supporters.

Later, six members of Yadav’s team travelled to the University of Akron in Ohio and attended an international fellowship programme for two months that coincided with the US presidential polls in 2016. The team learnt about campaign techniques and also about voter micro-targeting.

Even as his party colleagues were getting trained in the US, Akhilesh Yadav also roped in a Harvard University professor, Steve Jarding, to help the Samajwadi Party design a campaign for the elections in UP that are now underway. This was done in mid-2016. Jarding also served as a campaign manager and political strategist to the Democratic Party in the US. His other clients included Hillary Clinton, Spanish PM Mariano Rajoy and former US Vice-President Al Gore. Brought on board by the UP CM in the capacity of a political consultant, Jarding helped Yadav redesign his party’s social welfare schemes.

Jarding advised Yadav that while his programmes were good, there was some confusion among voters about whose scheme they were – the centre or the state. Jarding and team did a survey across UP and concluded that Akhilesh Yadav’s clean image and connect with the youth offered an opportunity. In the ongoing seven-phase Assembly elections in the state, these aspects form the cornerstone of the Samajwadi Party offering in a presidential-style campaign.

There have been specific minor-campaigns that have been done by the Samajwadi Party to counter any negative perception. One of these involved Akhilesh Yadav projecting that all of UP was his family. This was done to counter the perception that his party was only serving the interests of his clan.

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